Happy Cleaners (USA, 2019) [CAAMFest 2019]

“The dry cleaning business is a nod to our parents…they resort to menial labor, hoping it was all worth the journey across the waters” reads an abridged passage from a page on the Korean-American Story website, an organisation dedicated to the preservation of the experiences of parents and grandparents long settled in America to provide a better future for the next generation. Of course, this speaks volumes for the larger immigration experience as a whole, but here it serves as the backbone for the intergenerational clashes in Julian Kim and Peter S. Lee’s draggy yet heartfelt tribute to a culture left behind. Proudly screaming these hardships and sacrifices from the pit of its soul, Happy Cleaners somewhat loses its voice to haphazard plot execution and underdevelopment.

The Choi family are at heads with each other. Mum (Hyangwha Lim) and Dad (Charles Ryu) have worked tirelessly at their drycleaners for 17 years (being owners for 10) to provide a home and good education to their children Hyunny (Yeena Sung) and Kevin (Yun Jeong). As they’ve gotten older the parents – particularly Mum – have greatly frowned upon their life choices: Hyunny’s relationship with college dropout Danny (Donald Chang) is seen as a dead-end and Kevin’s decision to quit school to work a food truck in Los Angeles causes great upset. Desperate to carve out their own lives in what is seen as “their country”, the two children along with their grandma (Jaehee K. Wilder) come together in the face of impending adversity, putting their dreams on hold to help those who gave up theirs.

It’s a story we’ve seen plenty of times before, but given its locale, its characters, and their collective histories, Happy Cleaners finds itself in a unique position in compiling these individual stories rich with cultural symbolism and plating them up as a quaffable meal. The humdrum lives of the two immigrant parents and their multitude of struggles aren’t shied away from, the burden of their choices worn on their faces as much as age has set in. Both Lim and Ryu are superb to watch whether in quieter moments of contemplation, explosions of temper, or (purely for the basis of real world context) their subservience to their white customers and superiors. Lim’s Mum particularly commands a degree of respect as the family’s matriarch, even during her children’s defiance; as a result, we are compelled to believe in her story, as if it was truly her own.

Though Kim and Lee’s film does very well to bring attention to an oft-overlooked divide between national and generational identities, it is far from perfect as far as a cinematic narrative goes. Whilst Jeong’s performance is apt for his Kevin’s youthful arrogance it comes across as off-putting and ultimately unlikeable. This is nothing compared to the surreal, almost cartoonish, villainy of John Delvecchio’s cold-hearted yet distinctly white-American landlord; it’s a necessary role as far as the plot goes but completely jolts the film with every moment he is onscreen. Characters aside, Happy Cleaners is littered with shoehorned moments of poignancy with lines delivered which, though serving the film’s purpose well enough, seem unrealistic and out of place with the rest of the film. It’s just little moments like these which numbs the film’s impact.

There is also plenty of mention of Korea’s culinary heritage mentioned for promotional purposes and whilst there is plenty of cuisine present it doesn’t feel inviting or palatable. Scenes of food prep appear infrequently throughout the film but are framed and spliced together almost as an afterthought and fail to satisfy appetites. This might seem trivial but with the recent success of Alexandra Cuerdo’s mouth-watering documentary Ulam: First Dish (2018) – in which Filipino-Americans pursued culinary careers against their parents’ wishes whilst bridging the gap between the two cultures – this just feels like a missed opportunity. Also, at 95 minutes long, Happy Cleaners ought to be the right length for the drama to unfold and, to some degree, resolve itself. However, due to pacing issues it feels slow and drawn-out for most of the running time before rushing towards its climax.

For all its numerous downfalls though, the films does justice to the stories lived and shared by those who dared to dream and stands as a touching monument to those parents been and gone and to those who are still here. With powerful and endearing performances from most of its cast its memory will linger on in the same way the memory of the “old world” will be fondly remembered: by the continuation of the practices and their inevitable passing on through the generations. The care and consideration to bridge both sides of the story is unwavering too, making it a shame Happy Cleaners staggers past the finishing line for the sake of convenience.

Happy Cleaners is showing at CAAMFest 2019 on May 11 and 13.